Just an hour’s drive from the jostling metropolis of Seoul lie trails nearly untouched by humans for six decades, tempting adventurous hikers seeking pristine landscapes and scenes from the Korean Peninsula’s unfinished war.
But up until now, the overgrown routes just south of the Demilitarized Zone — a 259 kilometer strip of rugged no-man’s land stretching from coast to coast — have eluded most trekkers, except those with local knowledge.
This weekend, the government of Gyeonggi Province, which borders the DMZ, is unveiling a total of 182.3 km of courses in the area. It plans to post a map on its Web site and has started marking trails as part of a strategy to boost eco-tourism.
Trekking Sites near Seoul Korea
“If you come and visit this area, you can get a first-hand experience of the reality on the Korean Peninsula, which has been divided for over half a century, and also see a beautifully protected natural environment,” says Han Bae-soo, who is in charge of the project.
The courses include a dozen major routes passing through the cities of Gimpo, Goyang, Paju and the county of Yeoncheon, and vary in length from 8 to 21km — three to seven hours’ walk for an adult.
For those who want to feel the high military tension along the barbed wire fence, starting from the west edge of the first Gimpo Course is recommended. The 15.4 km trail begins at Daemyeong Port, passes Deokpo-jin Fort and runs up to the Munsoo Mountain Fortress.
Located near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) where the Han River meets the Yellow Sea, three-meter-high fences run through the trail under constant surveillance by the second division of the South Korean Marine Corps. As the sun sets, soldiers stand on the lookout for infiltrators and defectors from North Korea.
“Over the past decades, there were several cases of North Korean infiltrators swimming from upstream to the South,” Han said.
But North Koreans are not the only ones the guards keep their watchful eyes on; in very rare cases, South Koreans try to defect to the North. Last year, a South Korean pig farmer who was wanted for assault cut a hole in the DMZ fence and escaped to North Korea.
The nearby Ganghwa Island and Gimpo regions owe their varied biodiversity to the geography, which features sandy beaches, wetlands and fields of reeds. Abandoned rice terraces have turned into marshes, becoming a favorite feeding ground for waterfowl The process of marking routes near the DMZ, which benchmarked the popular Olle trekking courses on the southern resort island of Jeju, is slated to be finished by the end of May. Yellow ribbons hung on tree branches every couple hundred meters currently serve as a guide for hikers.
At the bottom of the hills near Deokpo-jin Fortress, a military camp believed to be built in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), are several man-sized holes. They were built more than a century ago to house artillery weapons targeting Western armies, including the French and the U.S. Navy, which both invaded the western island in the late 1860s, according to historical records. After limited military skirmishes, both forces made their retreat unsatisfied.
A reminder of more recent military tension is a warning sign on a nearby fence that reads: “This is where lost mines and explosives were detected.” Guards near the area are required to wear protective suits and shoes at all times, in case they accidentally step on a land mine buried in the years before and after the Korean War.
Farther down the path, a sense of peace prevails despite uneasy inter-Korean relations, with several locals digging up spring vegetables on a bright May morning.
Tensions between South and North Korea have been running even higher than usual lately following the sinking of a South Korean navy patrol ship on March 26 near their shared border, which claimed the lives of 46 sailors. During a public funeral last week, a South Korean defense official pledged to bring justice to those responsible and reinforce naval defense, amid growing suspicion over the North’s involvement despite its denial.
A walking journey along the DMZ is akin to traveling through time, sending visitors back to the almost forgotten days of the Berlin Wall. But the real reason to go is to witness one of the last conflicts left over from the Cold War, and gain a better understanding of how this thin green line tore apart the Korean people.
“It’s such a nice cool place to walk around and pick out herbs,” says Kim Sun-jae, 58, a weekend visitor from Seoul.
With the ocean and a sandy beach just below, Kim says he would like go fishing — if it weren’t for the chain-link fence.
But he believes a physical deterrent is still needed to maintain the status quo in the forefront region.
“There are some things we have to think about when considering the national security of our country,” Kim added.
The trekking courses are currently open to the public for free, and the government is preparing guidebooks in both in Korean and English that include maps and tips on famous sites as well as guided tours for visitors.